Myelodysplastic anaemia

Anaemia happens when there is shortage of cells with haemoglobin – a special substance which carries oxygen around the body. Anaemia can also occur if the body does not have enough iron.

Most children and young people who develop anaemia do not have a serious disease and their treatment can be quite simple.

But anaemia is also the main symptom of a very rare condition called myelodysplastic syndrome (say MY-eh-loh-dis-PLAS-tik Sin-drome). This is also called MDS.

MDS can eventually lead to another condition called leukaemia.

So myelodysplastic anaemia is the kind you get if you have MDS.

What causes myelodysplastic anaemia?

MDS is a blood condition. That means that the body has a problem making some kinds of blood cells.

The exact cause of MDS is unknown. In some people it starts after treatment with drugs or radiation therapy for other diseases. MDS may also develop without any known cause.

MDS is sometimes called preleukeamia because, in one in three cases, it can lead to a rare type of leukaemia called 'acute myeloid leukaemia'. This is a type of cancer which affects the blood cells found in your bone marrow.

Who can get it?

It usually affects adults and the average age to be diagnosed is around 60 to 75. It is rare in children. It is slightly more common in men than in women.

What are the key warning signs?

The key symptom of MDS is anaemia. This can make the patient feel very tired, look pale, be short of breath, feel cold or get chest pains. They may also have infections, bleeding or bruising.

How is it normally diagnosed?

If a doctor thinks their patient may have MDS, they will do blood tests to count the number of each kind of blood cell in the patient's blood.

If the results of the blood test are not normal, the doctor may perform something called a bone marrow biopsy. This means they will take a small sample of bone marrow – the spongy tissue found inside your bones – by using a special long needle which is put into your bone to get to the marrow. This is performed under anaesthetic.

How is it treated?

MDS can be treated but not cured. Treatments focus on controlling the symptoms and improving the quality of life.

Some of the most common treatments include blood transfusions, where fresh blood is given to you to replace the blood affected by the condition. Children with the condition may also be given medication to stop them getting infections.

The doctors will want to do everything they can to stop the MDS from turning into acute myelogenous leukaemia. Patients may be given chemotherapy or even a bone marrow transplan.

Can it be prevented?

There is nothing you can do to prevent yourself getting MDS.

When should I seek medical help?

If you feel unwell or have any of the symptoms of anaemia, you should visit your GP. They will then take a blood sample.

What about my future health?

Doctors can help manage MDS by using lots of different treatments and medications but it cannot be cured. If a child develops leukaemia, they will need further treatment in hospital.

Last reviewed by Great Ormond Street Hospital: 7 January 2009


Please note this is a generic GOSH information sheet so should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. If you have specific questions about how this relates to your child, please ask your doctor.